Confession: I want to be a good listener — after all, “attention is the rarest and purest kind of generosity,” said philosopher Simone Weil. But sometimes I feel like I have advice that’s really good and can’t help spitting it out. Or I get stumped on what to say. So, I turned to my friend Lina Perl, a clinical psychologist, who is one of the warmest people I know. Here’s her brilliant guidance…
1. The magical bullet phrase: ‘I’m so glad you told me.’
Sometimes in therapy, I’ll have clients who talk about something for five sessions, and I’m like, this doesn’t seem like a big problem, and literally in session five, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m having an affair with my best friend’s husband.’ And there’s a part of my brain that’s like, WHAAAAT?! But I say, ‘I’m so glad that you felt comfortable enough to tell me.’ If you take a moment to say this, you’ll immediately put people at ease. It opens the doors for the person to communicate more, and it also gives you a beat, especially if you’re feeling a little shocked.
2. Name the emotion.
Naming the emotion is extremely useful for kids (which is the context where I learned it), but it’s just as important for adults. If your child is angrily saying, ‘Ugh, I hate my brother!’, there may be an instinct to shut that down. But the first thing is to name how they’re feeling. If you say, ‘Wow, you’re really angry.’ They’ll be like, ‘YES!!!! That’s it!’ You will see someone relax instantly. People sometimes think that by naming it they’re going to make it worse. But that’s not the way it works. The person will feel relieved and seen, and that’s what they really want from a listener.
3. Be open and curious.
There are two kinds of questions: curious and judgmental. For example, if someone tells you that their boss screamed at them this morning, one question might be, ‘What did you do?’ The judgement is there. Instead, be open and curious. You might ask, ‘Oh my gosh, what happened? How did you feel?’ You want to make a space for this person to talk and be vulnerable. ‘What do you hope will happen? What are you afraid might happen?’
Sometimes I think, if I were writing a novel, what would I want to know about this character? What are they thinking? When have they felt this way before? You’re genuinely trying to learn more about them.
4. Repeat things back.
It’s 100% helpful to repeat things back. I’ll say, ‘I think I understand what you’re saying, but I want to be sure.’ You want to open the door to being wrong. ‘I think you were hurt when so-and-so said this to you, and it made you want to walk out of the room.’ And maybe the person will say, yes! Or maybe they’ll say, I actually felt more angry than hurt.
5. Resist the urge to problem solve.
While listening, both men and women try to problem solve way too often. What it conveys to the person, in an unconscious way, is that ‘I can’t tolerate whatever you’re feeling right now.’
If your partner comes home from work and says, ‘I’m freaking out, I lost a big account,’ one response could be, ‘Well, how can you get it back?’ But instead, ask how that person is feeling. ‘Oh, that sounds so stressful. What was it like being at work all day worrying about that? Do you need a hug?’ They want to know that you’ll be here, even if they never get the business back and are a big loser! Sometimes people want help problem solving, but FIRST let them know, however they feel is totally reasonable and you want to hear about it.
There’s a hilarious Chris Rock clip, where his wife is venting, and his reply to her is, ‘I told you that b*tch was crazy.’ That’s what people want to hear! Validated! Sometimes my husband and I will be talking, and he’ll randomly say, ‘I told you that b*tch was crazy,’ even if it’s not related to our conversation.
And it’s funny because the more curious you can be with people, the more authentic and likable they become. I’m always amazed by how fascinating my clients are. It’s not some act of charity to listen to people — it makes all your conversations better!
Thank you so much, Lina!
(Photo from Frances Ha.)